New Media Art in Slovenia: An Interview with Narvika Bovcon and Aleš Vaupotič

New Media Art in Slovenia: An Interview with Narvika Bovcon and Aleš Vaupotič
by Evelin Stermitz, July 2009

Narvika Bovcon is a new media artist. She studied visual communications design for the BA, video and new media art for MA and theory of new media for PhD, all at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She works as a lecturer of design practice and as a researcher of human-computer interaction design at the Laboratory of Computer Vision at the Faculty of Computer and Information Science, University of Ljubljana.
Aleš Vaupotič is a new media artist and literary comparatist. He holds an MA in video and new media art and is finishing his PhD in comparative literature, in which he connects his comparatistic theory with the artistic research in new media.
Both are involved in ArtNetLab, Society for Connecting Art and Science, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Evelin Stermitz: To introduce you and your involvement in digital installations and interactive new media works - How did you come to this field of art and what is most influential?

Aleš Vaupotič: At the undergraduate level I studied comparative literature, i.e. the artistic use of language which of course foregrounded the aspects of (verbal) communication as art. The step towards installation art and media art was in this sense natural. The influence was therefore of course theories of literature as a medium and theories of discourse in general. From the artistic part I was involved in video parallel to my theoretical studies. So the history of video art for me is still the foundation on which I try to build new media art pieces.
Narvika Bovcon: As a visual communications designer I was introduced to graphic design as means of communication. The interfaces and the software for graphic design are the basis of the interactive visual art. I was always sceptical about the advertising aspect of design, so I turned to the essence of building the image and communication, which I understood as art. The interaction, motion graphics and virtual worlds were the fields of interest.

E.S.: You mainly work together in your projects like other famous artist couples. How do you collaborate in the invention and developmental phase of your works?

N.B.: For new media art projects we always work together and usually with a team of computer engineers.
A.V.: The more technically complex and interactive the project, the bigger the team and the more we actually work as producers or “managers”. We conceptualise the project together by brainstorming. We decide on the meaning of particular parts of the project and the whole impression that it is supposed to have on the user together in a dialog. Sometimes we work with other artists and we decide on issues together or we divide the project in different segments. Also, between Narvika and me, we divide the work: Narvika usually does the visual aspect of the work, I write theoretical texts. However, at the end we both have to like, what the other one did. We quarrel a lot.

E.S.: Could you describe your first major solo exhibition “Artistic Archive: Two Examples” regarding your theoretical background of approach?

A.V.: We did two main exhibitions with catalogues which summarized our work that happened in certain time spans.\_cat\_reduced.pdf In 2004 we had the first exhibition of “Artistic Archive: Two Examples” where we have shown works that were, as the title says, archives. It included works such as “VideoSpace” - an archive of projects “RIII”, “VSA” and “Javornik”, which all in turn were also archives. “RIII” was a reading of one of the Shakespeare’s history plays reconfigured as an archive. “Javornik” was an archive of videos arranged in a certain composition. “VSA” was not really an archive; it was a collection of data. However, the important thing is that all the three projects were integrated in a virtual space as an exhibition space, which was, of course, an archive. The theoretical influence for this piece was the theory of chronotope and of dialogism by Mikhail Bakhtin. And the theory of Michel Foucault as presented in his key work “The Archaeology of Knowledge”. Lev Manovich, whom we didn’t know at the time we finished the projects, presented a similar view on new media art in his work “The Language of New Media”. I think that Bakhtin’s and Foucault’s theories put more emphasis on the way the relationships between the elements of an archive are construed, since they have to acknowledge the problem of the negativity of the element of the structuralist view of reality. Their solutions are in my opinion still valid. This exhibition was an archive of archives on the one hand in the gallery space and on the other also online. There was a second project, the second archive at this exhibition, which was “Mouseion Serapeion”\_en.php an archive of videos and digitised art works, which was built as an art project. What Narvika and I did was that we tried to use the elements of other people’s artworks and our artworks along with them to build our artistic project only from the relationships between the elements of the archive. Our “positive” product was the result of pure relationships between other people’s elements.
N.B.: The other main interest of artistic conceptualisation in “Mouseion Serapeion” was the search engine used to browse this archive. We conceptualised and implemented the search in 2004 as a reflection of the relations between the works included in a curated archive combined with the history of browsing which the users performed in real time online. So each time the user searches for an element in the archive, the structure of the archive is reconfigured, i.e. the relations between the elements are changed, which reflects the interest of the user/community and thus gathers the results of the next search string that are most appropriate to the user. For each search the user is presented with the main hit and additional six hits that form a constellation of relations in the archive. However, if the user is passive, the hits repeat themselves and the archive closes up, whereas with active search the archive is opening to the user with new hits and additional meaning. With this kind of search engine we wanted to reflect upon the user’s entering into a dialog with a larger mind. We were inspired by the planet Solaris in Tarkovsky’s movie: the planet that gives the user the image that he/she wants the most. Or on the other hand, by the image of god as a self-portrait in Dürer’s painting and in the renaissance mystical thought of Cusanus. In January 2006 we launched the Wiki version of the archive that allowed anyone online to upload new or delete existing elements from it.

E.S.: Your second main exhibition “Jaques” happened in February this year in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Which spaces of reality did you build up there and what was the concept behind it?

A.V.: In "Jaques"\_cat\_reduced.pdf we focused on how the reality is perceived differently when the smart technologies enter our everyday lives, when they leave the specialized environments of galleries and laboratories. A smart object is an object which acts according to somebody’s instructions and, because of this, one needs to relate to it as if to a person, has to try to understand it, e.g. a wall which would be capable of replying to you in a comprehensible manner is not the same thing as a wall of an ancient Greek city, which stands before us dumb. However, both the smart wall and the wall from Mycenaean culture from the example are understood from specific narratives that give them meaning - the smart wall gets the meaning from the narrative that was explicitly developed by its author from our time - we have built the project “Presence” which is a wall that uses a particular situation from the “King Richard the Third” to involve the user in a relationship -, whereas the story that gives meaning to the Mycenaean ramparts is of course the “Iliad” and the whole history of studies of ancient culture. This second exhibition was entitled “Jaques”- he is a person from Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” which for the most part takes place in the Forest of Arden. The Forest of Arden was used as a reference for politicised narrative space, a space that has to be understood but this understanding is not a passive one. One has to actively relate to its surroundings and this is true for non-computer supported elements of our environment as well as for computer supported interactive installations from our world. What we wanted to achieve in the “Jaques” exhibition is for the user to see the reality differently. To see it as an interactive arena which multiple authors co-create.
N.B.: “Jaques” exhibition was about smart spaces and smart objects in the mixed reality. It was constituted of multiple new media projects: “If you look back it won’t be there any more” (2006), “Lounge” (2008), “Dragonfly” (2007) in the first room, “IP Light” (2008) and “Presence” (2008) each in a separate room. We made the projects in the first room in collaboration with Barak Reiser, artist from Frankfurt am Main, whereas Igor Lautar implemented the virtual reality on the Data Dune platform with the Ogre engine for “If you look back…” This project was again a development of a kind of archive, where the smart virtual space was endless and building up in real time according to the user’s trajectory and his/her discovering of objects, new objects were generated that reflected previously seen objects in negatives, rotations, transpositions of related narratives. “Lounge” is a composite digital video of a virtual reconstruction of Anton Henning’s “Frankfurter Salon” and live footage of the authors composited in After Effects as sitting in the salon. “Dragonfly” is a 3D print of a digital model that is animated in the video. In the installation the visitors enter real and virtual spaces and encounter objects that are both real and virtual, material and digital. The same applies to the “IP Light” that has its own IP address and can be accessed and switched on/off on the Internet or with the switch in the room where it is plugged in the electricity. “Presence” is an interactive installation that involves computer vision software, which monitors movements and detects faces of the visitors in front of the two video projections. The videos are played in different order according to the actions of the visitors; finally the visitors have to act in a specific way if they want to see the video that shows the avatar speaking to them. The avatar was modelled and animated in Maya and rendered out as a digital human.

E.S.: You are engaged in the ArtNetLab, what does ArtNetLab mean and what is its ambition?

A.V.: We both run ArtNetLab which is an independent production unit. It grew out of collaboration between the Academy of Fine Art and Design and the Faculty of Computer and Information Science from the University of Ljubljana. ArtNetLab’s mission is to support the youngest generation of new media artists in Slovenia organisationally and financially by giving opportunities to present the works in Slovenia and in the international context.
N.B.: The collaboration between the artists and computer engineers is detrimental for new media art. Academy of Fine Art and Design, the Faculty of Computer and Information Science and ArtNetLab have facilitated such collaboration systematically since 2000, every year there are around twenty interactive new media art projects developed in this framework on the Master’s degree level. The collaboration between the two educational institutions is of the greatest importance for the development of new media art in Slovenia.

E.S.: Your work includes international exchange in your artistic work as well as in your involvement in ArtNetLab. What kind of experiences do you obtain from this various collaborations?

N.B.: We have worked mostly in the international context. ArtNetLab was the main organizer of the Maribor International Computer Arts Festival in 2004-2006, in 2007 we have organized in Ljubljana the Festival of Video and New Media Art, in 2008 and 2009 co-organized Speculum Artium. Working as coordinators and sometimes also as curators of international new media art shows was important for us, in this way we have of course learned a lot about the new media art in theory and in practice. Even more important was meeting artists from different countries.
A.V.: The international exchange has two aspects in the way I conceive art projects. I understand my Slovene identity through the use of language, the reason for which is probably my study of history of world literature. I think that one cannot make utterances that would have a general value since they are always embedded in a specific context, in my case the Slovenian one. However, at the same time language isn’t a fundamental entity which would grow out of things themselves, it is rather a system of appropriations, in Slovenian case of course the appropriation from European and international cultural sphere. It is some kind of dialectics of local and global which I think is the only way of making statements, i.e. artistic projects. So I wish to reflect my cultural specificity and don’t want it to enter my art works in a non-reflected way. This method was e.g. used by Slovene 19th century poet France Preseren when he was creating the artistic use of Slovene language and verse - he used German theory which pointed to him that he is supposed to use Italian poetic forms to build Slovene poetry according to the language-immanent conditions. I use international context as a language which I think functions in my projects as specifically Slovene. There is another aspect to this issue. For an author it is actually very difficult to see that he/she is a “typical” author. One needs to rely on the view from the outside.

E.S.: How would you describe the art scene in the field of new media art in Slovenia?

N.B.: In Slovenia we have some important new media artists. Starting with Sreco Dragan, who made the first video in Yugoslavia in 1969 and is making interactive and online installations since the nineties to the present day, he is very influential as the professor for new media art at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana. Vuk Cosic is world famous as one of the pioneers of net art. Marko Peljhan exhibited at all major new media art venues and works mainly in the international context trying to affirm the third culture of artists-scientists. Jaka Zeleznikar “writes” alghoritmic poetry and codes interventions in the net.
A.V.: I think that the canon of Slovene new media artists and also of new media art in general internationally is still in the process of being determined. I think there will be adjustments made in the future. I think Sreco Dragan’s works will have to be reconsidered in international context.

E.S.: Video art, which has a great influence and history in Slovenia, became the predecessor of interactive new media art. How do you view this development?

N.B.: Video art in the closed circuit installation is a predecessor to interactive new media installations in how it involves the internal observer, as Peter Weibel has explained. On the other hand the multiple video projections and split screens from the tradition of expanded cinema are predecessors to the spatial arrangements of multiple narratives typical for new media. And the manipulability of the video image in every point of its surface could be viewed also as the predecessor to the digital image that functions as a picture and as a command board. Furthermore, the synthetic character of video image is a way of mixing heterogeneous samples of reality.
A.V.: I would like to point out that for me the fundamental art tradition is video art. I believe that video is a specific medium, which has a separate tradition from film. For Flusser video is determined by its dialogic nature, the relationships between the recorded and the recorder. In video one has to build a dynamic image surface, which has to be controlled in every detail all the time. It can spread into the environment in the form of video installation whereas the constant communicative nature is sometimes being provided by the smart capabilities of computer software. However the measure for a successful art piece for me is the reassembly of the elements of all the history of art and all the history of mankind and all the reality that surrounds us into an audiovisual shock. This totality of an audio-visual impact on the user that functions instantaneously is a measure that I use to evaluate my work. The other goal for me in an art work is the same as Kafka’s: to write one of Dickens’s novels.